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  • On Justice: An Essay in Jewish Philosophy
  • Bernard S. Jackson
On Justice: An Essay in Jewish Philosophy. By Lenn E. Goodman. Oxford: Littman Library, 2008. Pp. xli +284. Paper £16.95, $27.95.

On Justice: An Essay in Jewish Philosophy by Lenn E. Goodman is a welcome paperback reprint of Goodman’s 1991 study (Yale University Press), with an expanded Introduction. [End Page 562]

It is an ambitious work: its scope encompasses divine and natural, as well as human, justice; its methodology aspires to a “comparative philosophy.” It argues for a deserts-based concept of justice both in the human sphere (with particular reference to punishment and recompense) and in that of divine justice (included are chapters on messianism and the afterlife).

Much of Western philosophy, Goodman argues, “often pretends to universality by spreading a thin secular mulch over its much older, thicker Christian roots” (p. xv); now, however, the climate (of cultural diversity) is changing so as to allow “a genuine cosmopolitan discourse” in which scholars who “critically appropriate the riches of their own heritage” may address “an ecumenical community in their own distinctive voices” (p. xviii).

But within what framework is this to be done? “The method of On Justice,” Goodman tells us, “is to work philosophically to a conceptual approach to specific problems about justice and to test the outcomes of that enquiry against the resources of Western and Jewish philosophy” (p. xx). That seems to imply (a) that the conceptual approach is culturally neutral, and (b) that what it is tested against is equally (if now non-neutrally) “philosophical.” I doubt that (a) is possible. As for (b), much of the Jewish tradition on which Goodman draws is, he recognizes, not “philosophical” but rather “exegetical.” Thus, “my aim has been to inform exegesis with philosophy, and philosophy with the fruits of exegesis. . . . The outcome, I hope, casts some new light on the philosophic issues by showing how the Jewish sources speak to issues of universal human concern.”

But “the Jewish sources,” as Goodman is well aware, do not speak with a single voice. His use of them is necessarily eclectic (e.g., his account of the zealotry of Phineas at pp. 44 and 242 n. 6, as the debates over Rabin’s assassination only too painfully show). More worrying, perhaps, is the question of what they actually do “speak to” (in their own historical and cultural diversity). While this may be a manageable problem for the more systematic and speculative writings, such as those of Philo, Maimonides, and Saadiah (from which Goodman frequently draws), it is much more substantial for the biblical and early rabbinic sources. Here, I fear, no “comparative philosophy” is possible before or in the absence of systematic internal investigation (recognizing the dependence of meaning on internal structural relationships), as represented, for example, by Jacob Neusner’s magnum opus (The Halakhah: An Encyclopaedia of the Law of Judaism [Brill, 2000]; The Theology of the Halakhah [Brill, 2001]) on the philosophy of the “classical” halakhah and by Aaron Kirshenbaum (“The Role of Punishment in Jewish Criminal Law: A Chapter in Rabbinic Penological Thought” in The Jewish Law Annual IX [1991], pp. 123–143) and others (Peretz Segal, “Postbiblical Jewish Criminal Law and Theology” in The Jewish Law Annual IX [1991], pp. 107–121) on the role of capital punishment as a kapparah.

How, then, are we to react when we find that theological positions revealed by such internal investigation are rejected by Goodman on the basis of his “conceptual approach,” or where they would “undercut the foundation of our theology in the experience of nature and history” (pp. 128–129; emphasis added). The answer, in fact, is straightforward: this simply illustrates the thoroughgoing philosophical critique that Goodman is applying to the Jewish tradition itself, in the course of his “comparative [End Page 563] philosophy.” No one should assume from the subtitle of the book, An Essay in Jewish Philosophy, that what is being compared is a normative, mainstream account. As Goodman himself puts it: “I want to see and show that my thoughts about justice resonate with core themes of the Mosaic symphony. . . . I don’t attempt, as an apologist might, to...